Heavy rain overnight left the morning air steeped in mist and fog. Droplets of water rolled off the trees onto our roof. Tropical birds fluttered between tree branches singing and squawking, while roosters crowed and frogs croaked. I emerged from our Airbnb hut on stilts, which sat off Bullet Tree Falls Road on the outskirts of San Ignacio Belize. My feet submerged into cropped rubbery vegetation soaked in cool standing water. I commenced my trek across the meadow to the bathroom, my flip-flops kicking water up my calves.

The aroma of coffee wafted out from the hut when I returned. I kicked off my sandals and closed the door just as another deluge of rain broke loose from the clouds. We sat down, coffee in hand, and waited for the rain to abate.

As expected, the deluge was short-lived. We shoved, jammed, and wiggled our feet into running shoes, damp and muddy from our previous day’s adventure. We grabbed our smartphones equipped with GPS and camera, tucked Belize dollars in our shorts pockets, slipped our water bottle straps onto our hands and stepped outside into the drizzle. Rain jackets were left hanging inside the hut; we had acclimated to varying degrees of wetness, from sticky to drenched, but had not yet felt chilled in Belize. Besides, the sensation of water rolling off our skin felt much nicer than a clinging wet jacket.

I tried to run the least muddy sections of the road – a strategy foiled by the onset of another torrential downpour. We turned toward a park expecting to find a footbridge across the Mopan River – a short cut to San Ignacio. Slipping and sliding down a grassy hillside, arms and legs flailing to keep ourselves upright, we followed a trail to the river. Instead of a bridge, however, we saw a yellow rope strung six feet high across the water. I envisioned us dangling from the rope swinging hand over hand, but was startled back to reality when a man’s voice rang out from under a nearby tree, “how about this weather we’re having?” Beside him was a rowboat with its nose on the shore. “You want a ride across?”

 

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Ferry on the Mopan River

As we clambered onto the boat, trying to keep it steady, a Belizean man came careening down the hill on a bike calling for us to wait. He was wearing a garbage bag over his clothes as protection from rain and mud flung from his tires. The four of us, and one bike, stood in the boat while the captain used the rope to pull us across the river hand over hand.

San Ignacio is spread over about three square miles. We ran through its center with the traffic, noting ATMs, tour companies, sidewalk menus touting stewed beans and Belikin Beer. Hostels were near internet cafés and small businesses sold household items. Delivery trucks clogged the narrow streets, parked with flashers on. School children, dressed in uniform, walked together in clusters along the side of the road. A short steep ascent up the last quarter mile to the Mayan ruins, Cahal Pech, was empty compared to the rest of town. It seemed we were the only people on vacation in San Ignacio.

Cahal Pech, means “place of the ticks” in Yucatec Mayan language. The name reflects the working conditions the archeologists faced in the 1950’s when the site was also a pasture. Yet excavations on this hilltop between 1988 – 2000 revealed what experts have determined to be a palatial home of an elite Maya family. Ceramic pottery discovered in the area has been dated back to 1,200 BC. I thought the name ill-fit such a remarkable discovery.

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Cahal Pech

We were the only visitors meandering through the tunnels, walkways, rooms, steep stairways, and plazas. I tried to imagine how it looked there when the Maya went about their business. Fog enfolded the structures and it was quiet, which made the occasional chirps and whistles of birds seem amplified. Not a tick in sight.

On this same run, we ventured out to the rural village of Santa Familia. The locals, from an integrated mix of Creole, Maya, and Latino origins, were relaxed and friendly. Children greeted us, residents waved from porches, dogs sprawled in the road in front of their homes and regarded us with disinterest. Homes rose on stilts, some with adjacent outhouses; clothing sized from adult coveralls down to the tiniest infant socks hung on clotheslines and fences, soon to be dried in the afternoon sunshine.

A sheltered wood-fired oven sat in front of a home with a sign posted, “tortila de vende.” The vendor, a stout weathered woman, was unaccustomed to having foreigners for customers. When my friend asked to take her picture, she laughed, deepening the lines on her face and revealing a small gap in her smile; she held her hands in front of her face and shook her head. We paid $1 BZ (50 cents USD) for a package of ten piping hot corn tortillas to consume at our Airbnb; they were the perfect accompaniment to hard-boiled eggs and silky avocados spiced with local hot sauce. A fresh pineapple, sweet like candy, topped off our meal.

We drove back to the center of town in search of internet access, fresh produce, and information from the Cayo Welcome Center. The outdoor produce market had permanent stalls open daily. There were papayas the size of footballs, monster melons, bananas at varying stages of ripeness and stacks of pineapples. The aroma of tropical fruit was intoxicating, the colors alive. We strolled through the entire market and purchased the makings of a vegetarian feast.
The man behind the desk at the welcome center was about twenty years old. His eyes lit up when we asked about local trails and swimming holes. He flipped open his notebook to a photo of Big Rock Falls in Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. He pointed to a rock wall adjacent to falls and described how he and his friends would climb up and leap off into the swimming hole. He jotted notes on the map, clearly describing the landmarks at crucial turns to get there. The waterfall looked voluminous, the swimming hole inviting and the rock walls treacherous. We would go there the next day.
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Big Rock Falls

A fifteen-minute drive west from San Ignacio took us to a hand-cranked ferry that carried us across the Mopan river to the Xunantunich archeological site. In contrast to our ferry earlier that day, this one had a platform to carry cars and we shared it with a pick-up truck. During the short ride across the river, the captain pointed out iguanas lying still on tree limbs over the water.

Xunantunich is Maya for “Stone Woman”. Like other ruins in the area, its original name is unknown. The jaw-dropping spectacle of “El Castillo”, a pyramid situated on the axis of the cardinal lines of the site, commanded our attention. The Belizean rule of “climb at your own risk,” despite steep stone stairs that are slippery when wet, was a novelty. In the US we see fencing and “Keep Off” signs, restrict access in the interest of preventing lawsuits. Xunantunich is in a peaceful sanctuary for tropical wildlife. While standing atop “El Castillo” we could see down howler monkeys thrashing and roaring in the treetops.
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El Castillo Xunantunich

San Ignacio was our hub for venturing down backroads to waterfalls and lush forests. We enjoyed the tropical scenery and wildlife. The day we spent close to town was a delightful immersion into the human side of Belize.

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